Are Videogames the Future of Remote Work?7 min read . Updated: 16 Jan 2021, 02:18 PM IST
One day soon, you may hear a colleague say those ominous words: ‘The boss would like to see you in her castle’
When I arrive at the office of IDE Corp., a 28-person company that provides consulting and professional development to teachers and school administrators, founder Nancy Sulla greets me warmly, then takes me on a tour, introducing me to her employees as we go.
Working on a couch in the lounge area, Executive Vice President Tanya Bosco is discussing new kinds of curricula with one of her direct reports, while a German shepherd rests at her feet. Nearby, at their desks, a handful of employees appear hard at work. In a conference room, we drop in on a business-development meeting that includes a half-dozen employees sharing documents with one another around a long table.
Later, we walk down to the beach, where IDE’s copy editor has set up her desk. She says she prefers the relative isolation here, since her work is less collaborative than that of other employees. Behind us tower the ramparts of IDE’s offices, which are housed in a medieval castle.
I’ve been to many corporate offices before, but in terms of square footage and amenities, IDE’s is among the most impressive. Few, after all, can match features like a bar, a TED-style auditorium and ocean views.
Another distinction: It’s completely virtual. The compound exists on the servers of Gather, a company offering a new kind of cloud-based service for remote work.
Gather, at first glance, looks like what you get when you smash together a 1990s-era videogame and Zoom. Think early Zelda or Final Fantasy, but instead of roaming the countryside slaying monsters, you’re puttering around an office, occasionally chatting with people through a familiar videoconferencing interface. You’re also collaborating on web-based documents and applications accessible, like a game’s potions or treasure, in your avatar’s “physical" space.
It may sound a bit contrived. And if you’re an office worker who’s already exhausted by endless Zoom meetings and the never-fully-offline nature of working during the pandemic, it might sound like more of the same. Indeed, some experts warn that it might be too much to expect remote workers to use tools like these to be even more present—both emotionally and on video chat—than they already are.
But such services already have sizable and growing ranks of customers. Close to a dozen startups offer services like Gather’s, most of them begun in the past 12 months.
Teamflow, which is focused on creating environments that look and feel like real offices, just received $3.9 million in venture capital, and is being tested by employees at Apple, Reddit and Uber.
Another, SpatialChat, now counts more than 2,500 businesses, institutions and individuals as paying customers, with more than 100,000 total monthly active users, says Chief Executive Almas Abulkhairov. They include employees at Sony, Panasonic, Sega, LinkedIn, Salesforce and McKinsey, plus educators and staff at 108 American universities, including Harvard, Stanford, Yale, MIT and others, he adds.
Remo, which focuses on events and has grown to about 80 employees, has hundreds of thousands of monthly active users, and is used by Lufthansa, IBM, ARM, Shopify and a number of universities, says founder Hoyin Cheung. The company went from founding to 8-figure revenue within 9 months, and took no outside investment, he adds.
Companies and organizations are using these platforms in a number of ways, including classes and events—ranging from happy hours and conventions to town halls and daily stand-up meetings—but also increasingly as an on-all-day replacement for going into the office. Some companies ask employees to log in whenever they’re at their computers.
Other startups in this space include With, Branch, Reslash, Around, Sococo and Topia. Each has a slightly different spin on the same basic idea: enable people to move about in a virtual 2-D environment, and video chat with others who are nearby.
Proximity is key: People who are farther away in these virtual spaces, as in real life, are, on almost all of these platforms, out of earshot. Likewise, when people are in virtual rooms, at desks, or in other private spaces, only those also in that space can speak with them.
This can be a helpful metaphor, psychologically. You’re probably used to walking up to people in the office to ask a question. But if you have the same question when working remotely, your options are different. Do you send an email to a 40-person list, hoping for one of them to answer? Do you hop onto the Slack channel of that same 40-person group? If you had a virtual office, you might “see" a handful of people from that group, and feel more comfortable hitting them up for an answer. And maybe, along the way, you “bump into" a friend you haven’t chatted with in a while, just like you would in the real office.
Another powerful factor: Human beings have a remarkable capacity to navigate, memorize and feel comfortable in virtual spaces. In fact, a large body of research has documented how our capacity for interacting with people and objects in both physical and virtual spaces is deeply encoded in the structure of our brains. I noticed this myself during trials of a few of these services. This shouldn’t surprise anyone who has spent much time playing videogames, but it’s more intuitive to “find" someone by wandering over to them than it is to dig them out of a menu or other text-based directory.
According to builders of these services and those who use them—as well as independent experts in remote work—they accomplish a handful of things Zoom, Slack and endless shared documents cannot: They trigger the place cells in our brains. They allow us to socialize and collaborate using norms acquired from working in actual offices. And they allow us to array our work—documents, projects, whiteboards and other files of every kind—in a persistent physical space. In this way, these virtual headquarters can function as reasonable approximations of “memory palaces."
Florent Crivello, CEO of Teamflow, says he has found his own team using their product in exactly this way—by creating, for example, rooms in their virtual office dedicated to specific projects. As a result, when they want to return to a particular marketing effort, they all return to the room where they were working on it. Rather than searching for documents, they just click on items they had previously placed around the room.
It’s clear by now that remote work is here to stay. A survey by Gartner published in mid-December found that 90% of HR leaders plan to allow employees who can work remotely to do so, at least part of the time, even after a Covid-19 vaccine is widely available. Those same leaders predicted that only half of their workforce will want to return to the office once they are able.
What’s less clear are the ways in which companies will reorganize work around this new reality, says Tammy Bjelland, founder and CEO of Workplaceless, which consults for and trains companies on how to effectively work remotely. There are two things companies that want to try out a virtual HQ using services like these must be wary of, she warns.
First, companies often assume a new tool alone will solve their issues with remote and hybrid work, without recognizing that they must get employees to adopt those tools. Once a new tool is adopted, employers must document and share norms for how they’ll be used. “Even before Covid hit I think organizations tended to focus a little too much on what tools they were using, as opposed to how they’re using the tool," says Ms. Bjelland. Second, if improperly used, a virtual headquarters can lead to some of the same issues that come in a physical office, such as increased distraction, she adds.
Pilar Orti, director of Virtual not Distant, which helps managers and their teams adopt online collaboration practices, has had experience with previous iterations of these kinds of virtual office tools, and says they are no panacea. While they might work for smaller teams and companies that are already built around remote work, some of her clients have found that making them a part of a team’s everyday workflow can be challenging, she adds.
Teams often already have remote communication tools they’re accustomed to, so adding another is just one more thing to log into and keep tabs on. Simpler solutions, consciously adopted by teams, like alerting other team members you’re at work, and shared documents in which employees keep each other appraised of what they’re working on, can work as well, if these systems are formalized, says Ms. Orti.
Back in the IDE castle, I ask Ms. Bosco (the EVP with the virtual German shepherd) how she can both make herself available for people for walk-up chats and also get her own work done.
She says that for her team, it’s been a process of establishing new norms. For example, Gather allows you to turn off your camera and microphone, but still be logged in to the service. If someone else’s avatar walks up to yours and that person says “Hello," you will hear it, and it’s up to you whether or not to respond. Plus, there are all the spatial cues: Avatars “seated" at their desks are intended to be less available than avatars found in the virtual lounge or cafeteria—a place where employees often chat while eating their real-life lunches.
If virtual cafeterias sound crazy, consider this: One default Gather template also includes a bathroom. IDE considered it, says Dr. Sulla, but “we decided it’s just a little weird."